Censorship Theme: Classism – John

censorAbstract: While there is a clear history of the elite using censorship as a mechanism to control lower-stratified socioeconomic classes, the theme of classism goes largely unmentioned in contemporary discussions of censorship. This paper briefly explores the history of censorship and the role the elite have played in using censorship as a form of power over society.  Explanations on the omission of classism from discussions are explored, as well as the benefits that such omissions provide the elite.  Sociological models of “containment” are applied in order to achieve a greater understanding of the ways in which the elite maintain control.

– John

An Absent Theme

Most reports of censorship in contemporary journalism seem to place such acts of control into certain themes.  These themes are often portrayed in terms of ethnicity, sex, violence, religion, or politics — yet, rarely is the category of classism addresssed, let alone acknowledged.  Classism can be loosely defined as bias against people of other income levels, with such disparity of income creating differences in lifestyle and culture.  Common use of the term “classism” has never gained popularity in the United States in the way that words such as “racism” or “sexism” have.  Censorship itself is defined by the American Civil Liberties Union as “the suppressed words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive'” occurring when “some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others” (ACLU.org, Censorship, para. 1). While censorship themes continue to largely avoid the category of classism, even the most pedestrian survey of the history of censorship reveals acts of socioeconomic discrimination and domination that have greatly contributed to censorship in its contemporary form.

A Brief History of Censorship

One could argue that censorship, in one form or another, has existed for thousands of years, from the silencing of Socrates in 399 BCE to the burning of Mayan texts by the Spanish in 1562 CE.  Neither of these examples, however, are exactly reminiscent of most forms of censorship as we know them today.  It is not until the 19th century, that the issue of censorship becomes a major point of contention between social classes, with the rise of the independent press (Newth, 2010).  The ruling elite began expressing concerns about threats of uprisings on the part of the working classes should they become too educated (Goldstein, 2000).  Free and unbridled presses suddenly provided a disseminating power previously unrivaled in human history (Coetzee, 1996).  Fueled by universalist notions sweeping across Europe at the time, Goldstein (2000) indicates that literacy rates grew from 30 percent to over 70 percent during the course of the 19th century.  The inherent power of knowledge not only awarded leverage to the working class in its own right, but it also provided self-awareness and self-reflection, encouraging the newly literate working class to crave a better life.  It is no wonder that in such a scenario, the ruling elite worried about their ability to continue to hold dominion over the working classes.

Elitist Fears of the Newly Educated Working Class

Technological developments lay largely to blame, or rather to credit, for the edification of the working class in the 19th century.  While the printing press, and later the allowance for free presses, certainly had the most obvious impacts on shifting the class landscape. John Stuart Mill pointed out in England in 1848, simply having multiple workers housed together within a single factory contributed to working class self-awareness, just as the railways suddenly gave the masses access to much greater mobility (as cited in Goldstein, 2000, p. 3).  As the working class became more self-educated mostly through free presses, governments and those in power began to express bold sentiments regarding ensuing negative effects of the rise of the working class emancipation upon society.  Perhaps the most extreme example of such proclamations is credited to the Spanish Prime Minister serving from 1851 to 1852, Juan Bravo Murillo, who declared that the lower economic class should not be taught to think, but rather simply to work like “oxen” (as cited in Goldstein, 2000, p. 3).  Over the course of the 19th century, the ruling class came to accept certain degrees of an educated public, though limits certain limits remained.  In Denmark in 1833, King Frederick VI proclaimed that peasants should be taught only the basics of education, such as the “3 R’s” balanced with duty to God and country, but nothing beyond this (as cited in Goldstein, 2000, p. 3).  Many of those who held power worried that as reading quickly spread beyond the upper middle class, social revolution would follow soon.

Rise of the Subversive Cinema

While the elite attempted to curtail literary freedoms by attacking free presses and journalists, they worried even more about the effects of theater and, to a much greater degree, film.  For the most part, theater was still somewhat expensive to attend, and was mostly a ruling class activity.  Nevertheless, in Russia at the end of the 19th century, censors targeted inexpensive theater productions more severely than those that catered to the ruling class (Goldstein, 2000).  The cinema, however, was not only inexpensive to attend, but it seemed to cater to the masses.  A primary threat of the cinema to the elite laid in film’s ability to transcend literacy.  The art of cinema is one of imagery, and through such images, ideas can be disseminated regardless of the level of literacy of the viewer.  Beyond the issue of literacy, audiences at the cinema exist as a group of people who, in the eyes of the elite rulers, can be incited to engage in subversive actions against the latter.  Film therefore posed the greatest threat from the perspective of those in power through its ability to instantly transform the audience into an unruly mob. Goldstein (2000) suggests that evidence for such fears can be found in the fact that even after many restrictions on the press were lifted, censorship of the cinema remained (p. 6).   It is of great interest to note that today film and television are perhaps the most publicly accepted objects of censorship, complete with social decency ratings systems, censorship code guidelines and infamous bleeping.

Contemporary Classist Censorship

Over time, the ruling class began to realize that mass education was necessary in order to compete with other nations, yet they also feared that such education could provoke social unrest (Goldstein, 2000).  Through such a scenario, education came to be controlled by and large through the state, under whose control it has largely remained until recent times.  Now that corporations seem to hold more power than governments in the West, most notably in the United States, the emergence of charter schools and the dissolution of state-controlled schools is occurring.  The new ruling elite today are less often government officials, now consisting of mostly corporate benefactors who essentially purchase politicians.  Regardless, those in power seem to have effectively censored the category of “classism” from any discussions on censorship among the populace.  The media seems to portray censorship through the lens of “racism” or “pornography” most likely to evoke sensationalist responses from the audience, and thereby increase revenue for the corporate elite.  Even in academia, classism is not usually considered as a theme when discussing censorship.  The famous German social theorist, Herbert Marcuse, referred to this process as “containment” whereby the elite effectively exercise power by omitting certain lines of questioning from public discourse (as cited in Oldfield, 2010, p. 451).

It is clear that during the 19th century the ruling elite sought to restrict information from reaching the working classes, yet those in power today seem to have effectively removed any notions of classism from the common dialogue on censorship.  Segal (1970) suggests that the “machinery” of censorship keeps the lower middle class in a state of self-censorship by exploiting the urge among them to appear dignified (p. 74).  Through this vain impetus toward self-censorship, classist censorship today goes largely unnoticed.  Americans who wish to think of themselves as existing at a higher socioeconomic class than their actual status remain passive victims of social domination by the elite.  Massive economic protests increasingly receive less and less coverage by the corporate media in the West.


While censorship themes continue to largely avoid the category of classism, as here evidenced, acts of socioeconomic discrimination and domination have greatly contributed to censorship in the form we know today.  For the wealthy elite, workers are a necessary evil that must constantly be managed and maintained, much in keeping with the livestock reference by Juan Bravo Murillo quoted earlier.  The absence of the term “classism” from the American vernacular most likely results from the fact that media owners are of the elite class, and therefore portray censorship in terms of, for example, racism or pornography, in order to avert attention from domination over lower economic classes.  Serious examinations of censorship must look beyond commonly presented themes or categories, and expose if and how any discussion of classist censorship is deliberately omitted by the elite.  If the “containment” tactics of the elite class are not explored and exposed, domination of the elites over the working classes will persist.


ACLU.org. (2013). Censorship: Recent court cases, issues and articles. American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved 2/15/2013, from  http://www.aclu.org/free-speech/censorship.

Coetzee, J.M. (1996). Giving offense: Essays on censorship. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Goldstein, R.J. (Ed.). (2000). The war for the public mind political censorship in nineteenth-century Europe. Westport, Conn, Praeger.

Newth, M. (2010). The long history of censorship. Norway, Beacon for Freedom of Expression.   Retrieved 2/16/2013, from  http://www.beaconforfreedom.org/liste.html?tid=415&art_id=475.

Oldfield, K. (2010). Reflections on theory in action: Using critical theory to teach public   administration students about social class inequalities. Administrative Theory & Praxis: 32(3), 450-472. Springfield, University of Illinois. doi: 10.2753/ATP1084-1806320312.

Segal, A. (1970). Censorship, Social Control and Socialization. The British journal of sociology, 21(1), 63-74.

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